Set Priorities First to Successfully Adjust to Graduate School

Balancing academic, family and career goals will help improve the graduate school experience.

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Allowing for time to adjust to a new routine and setting concrete priorities will help ease the transition to graduate school.

Congratulations to all of the students who will be soon enrolling in graduate school. All of the hard work, preparation and planning has paid off and it's about time to participate in orientation, register for the upcoming term and head to that first class.

The transition to graduate school will prove challenging at times. The workload will be heavy. You will have to juggle class assignments, general program requirements, family obligations and your financial responsibilities.

But setting priorities early and keeping calm can help you ensure a successful and personally fulfilling graduate student experience.

[Learn about major differences between college and graduate school.]

Above all, keep your cool and allow yourself time to adjust to a new routine. Graduate school is a major life change, and even good changes carry certain levels of stress.

Some graduate students move to a new city with very few, if any, friends. Some leave full-time jobs, change living situations or dramatically alter financial status. Additionally, there are the new responsibilities of academic work. It is a lot to handle, and in the beginning it could be a bit rocky.

When I started my master's program, I had been out of college for two years, was a newlywed and was moving away from my home, family, friends and job all at the same time.

I took a job filling orders in a nearby warehouse while my wife worked as a secretary. We had one car, and at the beginning our work schedules overlapped to the point that I had to walk a mile to pick up the car when I finished my shift.

It was overwhelming, and for several months I felt displaced and disoriented. I gradually adjusted to my new home, institution and job. But the transition probably would have been a bit smoother if I had relaxed a bit more and gone with the flow.

[Prepare yourself for graduate school orientation.]

Seven years later, when I started my doctoral program, I had been out of graduate school for five years. I was taking classes on the quarter system for the first time, which has three academic terms per year, rather than the semester system I was used to.

I had also recently left a good paying full-time job, and was working part-time again. Being older and having already earned one graduate degree definitely helped. I felt more relaxed and was able to adjust more smoothly and quickly.

 Setting clear priorities will also help you manage your time spent in graduate school. This is your graduate degree, so determine what you want from the experience.

Some graduate students will spend time reading, studying and doing research. On the other end of the spectrum, some students may be pursuing a graduate degree more for pragmatic reasons, such as to bolster their resume, and may not focus solely on academics.

Budget your time by first asking yourself how much time you plan to spend on studying, socializing with your classmates and participating in extracurricular activities. If you have a spouse, partner or family, consider how you will ensure that those relationships remain strong. You will also likely want to allocate time for career exploration and networking.

It's important to reflect on your needs and learning style and answer these questions honestly. Only you can set these priorities.

Write down your answers to these questions, and then assign each one a percentage of your time each week. This will allow you to visualize how your time will be scheduled, and help you understand that you most likely cannot accomplish everything.

Setting these priorities is not a matter of a right or wrong, but about what you want to get out of the experience. Graduate study offers a chance to delve into issues, concepts and debates in ways you may never experience again.

[Find out how to make the most of graduate school advising.]

While social life is important and advancing your career is admirable, do not miss the opportunities that graduate study offers to grow intellectually. Take advantage of what your professors have to offer. In addition, some of your best learning opportunities and friendships will come from your relationships with student colleagues.

Before arriving at graduate school, determine your major priorities and goals. Think about what you hope to remember a year after you graduate, and what will make you feel that the experience was a success.